(LifeSiteNews) — “I know not Vitalis, I reject Meletius, I pass by Paulinus; he that cleaveth to the Chair of Peter, he is mine.” (Jerome, Epistle 15 to Pope Damasus) Thus, about the year 376, when the whole East was disturbed by the competitions for the episcopal See of Antioch, wrote an unknown monk to Pope St. Damasus. It was St. Jerome, a native of Dalmatia, who implored “light for his soul redeemed by the Blood of our Lord.” (Epistle 16 to Pope Damasus)
Far from Stridonium, his semi-barbarous native place, whose austerity and vigor he never lost; far from Rome, where the study of literature and philosophy had not had sufficient ascendency to withhold him from the seductions of pleasure—the fear of God’s judgments had led him into the desert of Chalcia. There, under a burning sky, in the company of wild beasts, he for four years tormented his body with fearful macerations; and then, as a yet more efficacious remedy, and certainly a more meritorious mortification for one passionately fond of classical beauties, he sacrificed his ciceronian tastes to the study of the Hebrew language.
Such an undertaking was far more laborious then than in our days of lexicons and grammars and scientific works of every description. Many a time was Jerome discouraged and almost in despair. But he had learned the truth of the maxim he afterwards inculcated to others: “Love the science of the Scriptures, and you will not love the vices of the flesh.” (Epistle 125 to Rusticus) So he took up his Hebrew alphabet again, and continued to spell those hissing and panting syllables (Ibid.) until he had so mastered them as even to spoil his pronunciation of Latin. (Epistle 108 to Eustochium) For the rest of his life, all the energy of his spirited nature was spent upon this labor. (Ibid.)
God amply repaid the homage thus rendered to His sacred word: Jerome hoped to obtain by his toil the cure of his moral sickness; he moreover attained the lofty holiness that we now admire in him. Other heroes of the desert remain unknown: Jerome was one of those to whom it is said: You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world; and God willed that in due time that light should be set upon a candlestick that it might shine to all that are in the house. (Matthew 5:13-15)
The once brilliant student returned to Rome an altered man; for his holiness, learning, and humility, he was declared by all to be worthy of the episcopal dignity. (Epistle 45 to Asella) Pope Damasus, the virgin Doctor of the Virgin Church, (Epistle 48 to Pammachius) commissioned him to answer, in his name, the consultations sent from East and West; (Epistle 123 to Ageruchia) and caused him to begin, by the revision of the Latin New Testament upon the original Greek text, those great Scriptural works which have immortalized his name and entitled him to the undying gratitude of the Christian world. Meanwhile Helvidius dared to call into question the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God: Jerome’s refutation revealed that talent for polemics, of which Jovinian, Vigilantius, Pelagius, and others were also to feel the force. Mary rewarded him for thus avenging her honor by bringing to him a number of holy souls whom he was able to lead in the paths of virtue, and instruct in the mysteries of Holy Scripture.
Here was a phenomenon inexplicable to the infidel historian: at the very time when Rome of the Cæsars was perishing, suddenly around this Dalmatian were gathered the fairest names of ancient Rome. They were thought to have died out when the lower classes made themselves supreme; but at the critical moment, when Rome was to rise again purified from the flames kindled by the Barbarians, they reappeared to claim their birthright and refound the City for its true eternal destiny. The combat was of a new kind; but they were at the head of the army that was to save the world. Four centuries earlier, the Apostle had said there were not many wise and powerful and noble; Jerome declared that, in his day, they were numerous, numerous among the monks. (Epistle 66 to Pammachius)
The monastic army in the West was, at its origin, chiefly recruited from the patricians, whose character of ancient grandeur it ever afterwards retained; its ranks included noble virgins and widows; and sometimes husband and wife would enlist together. Marcella was the first to inaugurate the monastic life at Rome, in her palace on the Aventine. She obtained St. Jerome’s direction for her privileged community; but after his departure, she herself was consulted by all, as an oracle, on the difficulties of Holy Scripture. (Epistle 127 to Principia) She was joined in her retreat by Furia, Fabiola, and Paula, worthy descendants of Camillus, of the Fabii, and of the Scipios. But the old enemy could ill brook such losses to his power: Jerome must be forced to leave Rome.
A pretext was soon found for raising a storm. The Treatise on Virginity, addressed to St. Paula’s daughter Eustochium, and written in Jerome’s fearless and pointed style, evoked the animosity of false monks, foolish virgins, and unworthy clerics. (Epistle 22 to Eustochium) In vain did the prudent Marcella predict the tempest: Jerome would make bold to write what others dared to practice. (Epistle 27 to Marcella) But he had not reckoned on the death of Pope Damasus at that very juncture; an event for which the ignorant and the envious had been waiting, in order to give full vent to their stifled hatred. (Epistle 45 to Asella)
Driven away by the storm, the lover of justice returned to the desert; not this time to Chalcis, but to the peaceful Bethlehem, whither the sweet recollections of our Savior’s infancy attracted the strong athlete. Paula and her daughter soon followed him, in order not to forego the lessons they prized above all else in the world; their presence was a consolation to him in his exile, and an encouragement to continue his labors. All honor to these valiant women! To their fidelity, their thirst for knowledge, their pious importunities, the world is indebted for a priceless treasure, viz: the authentic translation (Council of Trent, Session 4) of the Sacred Books, which was necessitated by the imperfections of the old Italic Version and its numberless variations, as also by the fact that the Jews were accusing the Church of falsifying the Scripture. (Preface on Isaiah)
“Paula and Eustochium, may the labors of my poor life be pleasing to you, useful to the Church, and worthy of posterity; as for contemporaries, I care but little for their judgment.” So said the holy solitary; (Preface on Daniel) yet he felt the envious attacks of his bitter enemies more keenly than he would own to himself. “Handmaids of Christ,” he said, “shield me with the buckler of your prayers from those who malign me.” (Prefaces on Books of Samuel and Kings) Every book he translated brought upon him fresh criticisms, and those not only from enemies. There were the timid, who were alarmed for the authority of the Septuagint, so sacred both to the Synagogue and to the Church; (Epistle 56 from Augustine) there were the possessors of precious manuscripts, written on purple vellum and adorned with splendid uncials, and with letters of silver and gold, all which would now lose their value.
“Well, let them keep their precious metal, and leave us our poor papers,” cried Jerome, (Preface on Job) exasperated. “And yet, it is you,” he said to the fair inspirers of his works, “who force me to endure all this folly and all these injuries; to put an end to the evil, it were better you enjoined silence on me.” (Preface on Jeremiah) But neither the mother nor the daughter would hear of such a thing, and Jerome yielded to constraint. (Ibid.) Finding that the text of his first revision of the Psalter upon the Greek Septuagint (Psalt. rom.) had become corrupted through careless transcriptions, they induced him to undertake a second. (Psalt. gall.) This version is inserted in our present Vulgate, together With his translation of the other Books of the Old Testament from Hebrew or Chaldaic. In all these works the saint appealed to Paula and Eustochium as guarantees of his exactitude, and begged them to collate his translations word for word with the original. (Preface on Esther)
All his old friends in Rome took part in this learned intercourse. Jerome refused to none the light of his knowledge, and pleasantly excused himself for giving one half of the human race a preference over the other: “Principia, my daughter in Jesus Christ, I know that some find fault with me for writing to women; let me say, then, to these detractors: If men questioned me on the Scriptures, they should receive my answers.” (Epistle 65 to Principia)
There was great joy in the monasteries at Bethlehem when news arrived that another Paula was born in Rome. Eustochium brother had married Læta, the Christian daughter of the pagan pontiff Albinus. They had vowed their child to God before her birth; and now they rejoiced to hear her lisp into the ear of the priest of Jupiter the Christian Alleluia. On hearing of her grandmother beyond the seas, and of her aunt consecrated to God, the little one would beg to go and join them.
“Send her,” wrote Jerome delightedly. “I will be her master and foster-father; I will carry her on my old shoulders; I will help her lisping lips to form her words; and I shall be prouder than Aristotle; for her indeed educated a king at Macedon, but I shall be preparing for Christ a handmaid, a bride, a queen predestined to a throne in heaven.” (Epistle 107 to Laeta) The child was, in fact, sent to Bethlehem, where she was destined to solace the last hours of the aged saint, and to assume, while yet very young, the responsibility of carrying on the work of her holy relatives.
But Jerome had still more to suffer, before leaving this world. The elder Paula was the first to be called away, singing: I have chosen to be an abject in the house of my God, rather than to dwell in the tabernacles of sinners. (Psalm 83:11) So great a languor then took possession of St. Jerome that it seemed his end was approaching. (Epistle 99 to Theophilus) Eustochium, though broken-hearted, repressed her tears, and implored him to live and fulfill his promises to her mother. He therefore aroused himself, finished his translations, (Preface on Joshua, Judges, & Ruth) and took up again his commentaries on the text. He had completed Isaias, (Commentary on Isaiah) and was engaged upon Ezekiel, when the most awful calamity of those times came upon the world: “Rome is fallen; the light of the earth is extinguished; in that one City the whole universe has perished. What can we do, but hold our peace and think upon the dead?”
He had, however, to think about the living also, for numberless fugitives, destitute of all things, made their way to the Holy Places; and the uncompromising wrestler was all tenderness to these unfortunates. Loving the practice of the Holy Scripture no less than its teaching, he spent his days in discharging the duties of hospitality. In spite of his failing sight, he gave the night hours to his dear studies, wherein he forgot the troubles of the day, and rejoined to fulfill the desires of the spiritual daughter God had given him. The prefaces to his fourteen books on Ezekiel bear witness to the share taken by the virgin of Christ in this work undertaken despite the misfortunes of the times, his own informities, and his last controversies with heretics. (Preface on Ezekiel)
Heresy seemed indeed to be profiting of the troubled state of the world, to rise up with renewed audacity. The Pelagians, supported by Bishop John of Jerusalem, assembled one night with torches and swords, and set fire to the monastery of St. Jerome, and to that of the sacred virgins then governed by Eustochium. Manfully seconded by her niece Paula the younger, the saint rallied her terrified daughters, and they escaped together through the midst of the flames. But the anxiety of that terrible night was too much for her already exhausted strength. Jerome laid her to rest beside her mother, near the Crib of the Infant God; and leaving his commentary on Jeremias unfinished, he prepared himself to die.
The following is the Liturgical account of his life.
Jerome, son of Eusebius, was born at Stridonium in Dalmatia, during the reign of the emperor Constantine. He was baptized while still young at Rome, and was instructed in the liberal arts by Donatus and other learned men. His love of knowledge led him to travel to Gaul, where he made the acquaintance of several pious men learned in divinity, and copied many sacred books with his own hand. He then proceeded to Greece, to study eloquence and philosophy. Here he won the friendship of some great theologians; in particular of Gregory Nazianzen, under whom he studied at Constantinople, and whom he calls his master in sacred learning. Drawn by religious motives, he visited the Crib of Christ our Lord, and the whole of Palestine: and he tells us that this pilgrimage, made in the company of some learned Jews, was of the greatest service to him for the understanding of Holy Scripture.
After this Jerome retired into the lonely desert of Syria, where he spent four years in reading the Holy Scripture, and in the contemplation of heavenly beatitude, afflicting his body by abstinence, weeping, and every kind of penance. He was ordained priest by Paulinus, bishop of Antioch; in whose company and that of Epiphanius, he came to Rome, to settle the disputes that had arisen between certain bishops. Here Pope Damasus engaged him to assist in writing his ecclesiastical letters. But yearning for his former solitude, he returned to Palestine, and settled at Bethlehem in a monastery built by the Roman lady Paula, near our Lord’s Crib. Here he led a heavenly life; and though much afflicted with sickness and sufferings, he devoted himself, in spite of his bodily weakness, to works of piety and to ceaseless study and writing.
From all parts of the world he was referred to as an oracle for the decision of questions concerning the sacred Scriptures. Pope Damasus and St. Augustine often consulted him on difficult passages of Holy Writ, on account of his remarkable learning and his knowledge not only of Latin and Greek but also of Hebrew and Chaldaic. According to St. Augustine, he had read almost every author. In his writings he severely censured heretics; but always lent his support to faithful Catholics. He translated the Old Testament from the Hebrew; and at the command of Pope Damasus, revised the New Testament, collating it with the Greek; he also commented the greater part of Holy Scripture. Besides this, he translated into Latin the writings of many learned men, and enriched Christian science with other works from his own pen. At length, having reached extreme old age, and being renowned for learning and holiness, he passed to heaven in the reign of Honorius. His body was buried at Bethlehem; but was afterwards translated to Rome and laid in the Basilica of St. Mary ad Præsepe.
Thou completest, O illustrious saint, the brilliant constellation of Doctors in the heavens of Holy Church. The latest stars are now rising on the sacred Cycle; the dawn of the eternal Day is at hand; the Sun of Justice will soon shine down upon the Valley of Judgment. O model of penance, teach us that holy fear which restrains from sin, or repairs its ravages; guide us along the rugged path of expiation.
Historian of great monks, (Life of St Paul the Hermit, Life of S. Hilarion, Life of Malchus, the Captive Monk) thyself a monk and father of the solitaries attracted like these to Bethlehem by the sweetness of the divine Infant, keep up the spirit of labor and prayer in the monastic Order, of which several families have adopted thy name. Scourge of heretics, attach us firmly to the Roman faith. Watchful guardian of Christ’s flock, protect us against wolves, and preserve us from hirelings. Avenger of Mary’s honor, obtain for our sinful world that the angelic virtue may flourish more and more.
O Jerome, thy special glory is a participation in the power of the Lamb to open the mysterious Book; the key of David was given to thee to unclose the many seals of Holy Scripture, and to show us Jesus concealed beneath the letter. (Epistle 53 to Paulinus) The Church, therefore, sings thy praises today and presents thee to her children as the official interpreter of the inspired writings which guide her to her eternal destiny. Accept her homage and the gratitude of her sons. May our Lord, by thy intercession, renew in us the respect and love due to his divine word.
May thy merits obtain for the world other holy doctors and learned interpreters of the sacred Books. But let them bear in mind the spirit of reverence and prayer with which they must hear the voice of God in order to understand. God will have his word obeyed, not discussed; although, among the various interpretations of which that divine word is susceptible, it is lawful, under the guidance of the Church, to seek out the true one; and it is praiseworthy to be ever sounding the depths of beauty hidden in that august doctrine. Happy is he who follows thy footsteps in these holy studies! Thou didst say: “To live in the midst of such treasures, to be wholly engrossed in them, to know and to seek nothing else, is it not to dwell already more in heaven than on earth? Let us learn in time that science which will endure forever.” (Ibid.)